Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

Massive Gas Leak Could Be the North Sea's Deepwater Horizon

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 2:20 PM EDT

 North Sea platforms: tjodolv via Flickr.North Sea platforms: tjodolv via Flickr. 

A natural gas well in the North Sea 150 miles off Aberdeen, Scotland, sprung a massive methane leak on March 25. The 238 workers were all safely evacuated. But the situation is so explosive that an exclusion zone for ships and aircraft has been set up around the rig, reports the Mail Online. And nearby rigs have been evacuated, reports the New York Times:

Royal Dutch Shell said it closed its Shearwater field, about four miles away, withdrawing 52 of the 90 workers there; it also suspended work and evacuated 68 workers from a drilling rig working nearby, the Hans Deul.

But that's not the worst of it. The platform lies less than 100 yards/meters from a flare that workers left burning as crew evacuated. The French super-major oil company owner of the rig, Total, dismissed the risk, while the British government claimed the flame needs to burn to prevent gas pressure from building up. But Reuters reports:

[O]ne energy industry consultant said Elgin could become "an explosion waiting to happen" if the oil major did not rapidly stop the leak which is above the water at the wellhead.

Elgin Field.:  Adapted from map by NordNordWest via Wikimedia Commons.Elgin Field: Adapted from map by NordNordWest via Wikimedia Commons.And that may not be the worst of it either. The leak is not in the well apparently but in the chalky seabed around it. No one really knows how reparable that will be—especially with the risk of explosion so high for any workers on site

Plus, the field produces sour gas: a potent mix of natural gas, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide. Twenty years ago the cost of extracting energy from such messy stuff would have been prohibitively expensive. Now, not so much. But the true cost could be brutal, reports the BBC :

The major threat to the local ecosystem is the hydrogen sulphide, which is toxic to virtually all animal life. "You might as well put Agent Orange in the ocean," says [Simon Boxall of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, UK]. Because the leak is below the water's surface, the hydrogen sulphide is bubbling through the sea water. This is the worst-case scenario, says Boxall, because it could lead to mass animal and plant deaths. Boxall says Total needs to monitor the water quality to see if this is happening.


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Barataria Bay Dolphins Severely Ill

| Mon Mar. 26, 2012 4:48 PM EDT

 Researchers working with severely ill dolphins off Louisiana: NOAA.

Veterinarians collect samples from Barataria Bay dolphins, Louisiana: NOAA.

The bottlenose dolphins of Barataria Bay, Louisiana, are showing signs of severe ill health, according to a report from NOAA.

I wrote about the fate of these resident dolphins at the height of the BP's oil disaster in my Mother Jones' piece The BP Cover Up.

Barataria Bay, as you likely remember, in the northern Gulf of Mexico, was horrifically polluted by prolonged exposure to oil during the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Here's what NOAA says about the latest problems affecting dolphins there:

Based on comprehensive physicals of 32 live dolphins from Barataria Bay in the summer of 2011, preliminary results show that many of the dolphins in the study are underweight, anemic, have low blood sugar and/or some symptoms of liver and lung disease. Nearly half also have abnormally low levels of the hormones that help with stress response, metabolism and immune function. Researchers fear that some of the study dolphins are in such poor health that they will not survive. One of these dolphins, which was last observed and studied in late 2011, was found dead in January 2012.

Veterinarians collect a urine sample from Y12, a 16-year-old adult male bottlenose dolphin caught near Grand Isle, LA. Y12’s health evaluation determined that he was significantly underweight, anemic, and had indications of liver and lung disease. After t: NOAA.Veterinarians collect a urine sample from Y12, a 16-year-old adult male bottlenose dolphin caught near Grand Isle, LA. Y12’s health evaluation determined that he was significantly underweight, anemic, and had indications of liver and lung disease: NOAA.

Since February 2010, more than 675 dolphins have stranded in the northern Gulf of Mexico—a much higher rate than the usual average of 74 dolphins a year. This has prompted NOAA to declare an Unusual Mortality Event and investigate the cause of death for as many of the dolphins as possible.

Some waters in the northern Barataria Basin, a larger area that includes Barataria Bay, remain closed to commercial fishing, as visible oil is still present along the shoreline where the closures are in place. The joint protocol directs seafood safety testing to begin only after visible oil is gone.

Deepwater Horizon Hammered Deep-Water Corals

| Mon Mar. 26, 2012 2:51 PM EDT

 Healthy deep-water coral communities were observed in November 2010 from various sites >20 km from the Macondo well.: Courtesy Chuck Fisher, PSU. Copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

A healthy deep-water coral more than 12 miles (20 km) from BP's Macondo well, November 2010: Courtesy Chuck Fisher, PSU. Copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

A study published this week in PNAS finds BP's oily fingerprints on severely damaged deep-water coral communities in the Gulf of Mexico.

The new research also fortifies our understanding that the sheer magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe—notably its release at depth—made for a totally different beast than for spills occurring only at the surface. 

In the photo above you can see a healthy deep-water coral with a healthy brittle star wrapped around it. This photo was taken at a site more than 12 miles (20 km) from BP's Macondo well seven months after the blowout.

Brown woolly material and tissue loss was first observed on corals in November 2010 at sites 11 km southwest of the Macondo well: Courtesy Chuck Fisher, PSU. Copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.Oiled deep-water coral covered with brown wooly material and tissue loss from site 7 miles (11 km) southwest of the Macondo well, November 2010: Courtesy Chuck Fisher, PSU. Copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Contrast that with the photo above of a sick, dead, or dying deep-water coral with a sick or dying brittle star attached to it at 4,300-feet deep (1,310 meters), 7 miles (11 km) from BP's Macondo well seven months after the blowout. 

So how do you know if it was BP's oil that was maiming these amazing communities that exist beyond the reach of sunlight?

That's where the interesting science comes in. Using the submersible Alvin, the researchers collected sediments and samples of the corals and filtered the brown wooly material off the sick corals. These materials were then analyzed using comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography—a method pioneered at WHOI specifically for use in oil spill research.

During six dives in Alvin, the team collected sediments and samples of the corals and filtered the brown material off of the corals for analysis: courtesy of Chuck Fisher, Pennsylvania State University, and Timothy Shank, WHOI. Deep-sea time-lapse camera system provided by WHOI-MISO.Alvin collecting sediments and samples of corals for analysis: Courtesy of Chuck Fisher, Pennsylvania State University, and Timothy Shank, WHOI.

The results delivered an oily fingerprint traceable directly to BP's Macondo well spill.

What's not yet known is whether or not these corals and the communities that depend on them will will recover. Members of this research team are monitoring the site, including with time-lapse imaging.


I wrote at length about my adventures in the Alvin world in my Mother Jones' piece Gone.

Heat Wave Hangover

| Fri Mar. 23, 2012 2:12 PM EDT

Credit: Joe Chung via Flickr.

Credit: Joe Chung via Flickr. 

We know the past 10 days has seen the most mind-blowing heat wave since record keeping began in North America. As some meteorologists say: "It's almost like science fiction at this point."

So what's the likely hangover from this insanely hot and steamy spring break? How will summer-in-winter affect the real summer? 

Credit: Cowgirl Jules via Flickr.Credit: Cowgirl Jules via Flickr.

First up, kickstarting an early growing season is likely to devastate crops subjected to the whiplash of returning cold. Jeff Masters at Wunderblog points out the growing season is now in full swing five weeks early in the Upper Midwest:

A damaging freeze that will severely impact the fruit industry and other sensitive plants is very likely. Indeed, the forecast calls for lows in the upper 20s in the cherry-growing region of Michigan near Traverse City on Monday night.

Credit: Eric Luebehusen, USDA.Credit: Eric Luebehusen, USDA.

And since the mutant March heat melted all the snow in the northern US and southern Canada it primed the way for a hotter and probably drier summer, with reduced water flow in rivers, further stressing crops.

You can see on the latest USDA's Drought Monitor (above) where the seeds of drought are already being sowed. The Drought Monitor notes about the heat wave in the Central and Northern Plains:

Unseasonably warm, dry conditions prevailed, with temperatures averaging 20 to 25°F above normal across most of the region... [T]he unseasonable warmth has led to early crop development and increased water demands.

 Wheat crop withered by drought.: David Kelleher via Flickr.

Credit: David Kelleher via Flickr.

About the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast the Drought Monitor notes:

In southern New England... streamflows and well-water levels have declined, and are in the lowest 2nd and 5th, respectively, in this region... Streamflows have dropped below the 10th percentile in east-central Pennsylvania and much of New Jersey, and have slipped below the 30th percentile across Maryland, Virginia, and eastern West Virginia. 

And about the Southeast the Drought Monitor notes:

 Streamflows in southeastern Alabama are near historic lows, and have dropped to the lowest 20th percentile in... areas of northern Georgia. The ongoing dryness has also been accompanied by daytime highs approaching 90°F, which has increased  water demands for crops and pastures. Likewise, long-term drought is evidenced by record- or near-record low ground water levels across much of southern Georgia and southeastern Alabama... In Florida... severe Drought was expanded across the northwestern shores of Lake Okeechobee, where 90-day precipitation deficits averaged 4 to 6 inches... In addition, Severe Drought was introduced to the southwestern peninsula, where 90-day rainfall has averaged 25 to 50 percent of normal.   

Daily streamflow for 23 Mar 2012.: USGS.Daily streamflow for 23 Mar 2012.: USGS.

Low water flows in rivers may also cause problems for navigation on rivers in the Midwest, making it harder to move crops and other goods to where they need to get to.

This USGS daily stream flow map shows where extremely low flows are already occurring. Combine this map with the Drought Monitor map and you get a preview of where the hangover is likely to really hurt this summer.

Monster Heat Wave Stomps NOAA Website

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 1:03 PM EDT

Derived from Mizunoumi via Wikimedia Commons.

Derived from Mizunoumi via Wikimedia Commons. 

March's mutant heat has been so extreme it's crashed the 'Extremes' section of NOAA's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) website. Why? Because:

  1. the software couldn't handle the huge number of high-temperature records being set and
  2. the site couldn't handle the huge demand from people wanting to see the records

I've been so frustrated at being unable to access the site in the midst of one of the most extreme weather events in more than a century of record keeping that I found myself visited by a feverish little brain worm called 'conspiracy.' 

Credit: NOAA National Climatic Data Center.Credit: NOAA National Climatic Data Center.

But according to Jeff Masters at Wunderblog the NCDC has spent the week reengineering their software to handle the extreme load on both records and demand.

Today the site is up and running again—though only with data through last Sunday. You can see in the chart above the monster rate of broken records. A few noteworthies:

  • Not only are daytime high-temp records (Hi Max) falling but more impressively the number of nighttime high-temp records (Hi Min) are falling nearly as fast.
  • Hi Max records are outpacing Lo Max (daytime low-temps) records by 25-to-1 last week.
  • Hi Min records are outpacing Lo Min (nighttime low-temps) records by 16-to-1 last week.


Historic heat wave in N. America turns winter to summer: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using data from the Level 1 and Atmospheres Active Distribution System (LAADS).

Monster heat wave in N. America turns winter to summer: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using data from the Level 1 and Atmospheres Active Distribution System (LAADS). 

NASA's Earth Observatory just published this map showing the intensity and scope of the heat wave as surface temperature anomalies. The map compares the current heat wave to average temps for the same eight-day period in March from 2000-2011. Warmer than average temps are red, near-normal temps are white, cooler than average are blue. From the Earth Observatory:

Records are not only being broken across the country, they're being broken in unusual ways. Chicago, for example, saw temperatures above 26.6°Celsius (80°Fahrenheit) every day between March 14-18, breaking records on all five days. For context, the National Weather Service noted that Chicago typically averages only one day in the eighties each in April. And only once in 140 years of weather observations has April produced as many 80°Fahrenheit days as this March. Meanwhile, Climate Central reported that in Rochester, Minnesota. the overnight low temperature on March 18 was 16.6°Celsius (62°Fahrenheit), a temperature so high it beat the record high of 15.5°Celsius (60°Fahrenheit) for the same date.


 Global temperature trend: NASA Earth Observatory, Robert Simmon.

Global temperature trend: NASA Earth Observatory, Robert Simmon.

Clearly 2012 is stomping the norm since 2000. And as you can see in this chart of rising global temperatures, the norm since 2000 has stomped all the norms of the prior century.

Thu Jun. 27, 2013 5:05 AM EDT
Tue May. 21, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
Tue Apr. 16, 2013 5:05 AM EDT
Fri Apr. 12, 2013 5:10 AM EDT
Fri Apr. 5, 2013 5:15 AM EDT
Fri Mar. 8, 2013 6:20 AM EST
Mon Feb. 11, 2013 6:02 AM EST
Thu Jan. 31, 2013 6:21 AM EST
Fri Jan. 18, 2013 4:37 PM EST
Fri Dec. 14, 2012 6:18 AM EST
Tue Nov. 27, 2012 6:13 AM EST
Thu Nov. 15, 2012 6:18 AM EST
Fri Nov. 9, 2012 6:03 AM EST
Tue Nov. 6, 2012 6:13 AM EST
Mon Oct. 22, 2012 2:18 PM EDT